The premise of Haunted Child is simple. A man has left his wife and child without saying anything to them only to return having been initiated into what appears to be a sinister and predatory esoteric culture in West London. His intentions for his family and how his estranged wife and child cope with his return and changed self are not smooth and honest and create a great deal of tension and drama.
This play marks Penhall’s return to theatre and the Royal Court. His first major play, Some Voices, premiered at the Royal Court back in 1994 and since then he has written successfully for both stage and screen, most notably with Blue/Orange, The Road and the screen adaptation of Enduring Love.
Penhall is very skilled at making us feel the tension before us and both Okonedo and Daniels both produce spirited and touching performances. You genuinely feel like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall trying to reach past the indoctrination that Douglas has suffered from. The talent of Daniels is at the fore, you really do believe that some spiritual force has compelled him and I, at least, wanted to sit him down and talk sense in to him as much as Okonedo was trying to do on stage. His characterization of the less sane elements of the esoteria was both funny and deeply worrying at the same time and I felt sincere fear for the son as he was innocently wanting to follow his dad into whatever pit he was falling into.
Okonedo deserves equal praise for her role as the distressed wife. Trying to battle against the nonsense her husband is sprouting while trying to protect her petulant son from being exposed to it isn’t only difficult in reality but also very difficult to balance on stage. She does a great job, fixing herself as an anchor of sense and sensibility while at no point feeling totally secure in herself. Although she suffered more from line slips than the others, she had a lot more to cope with and dealt with it all very well indeed.
The acting throughout was of a very high standard. Near the beginning there were a couple of line slips that could properly be put down to the fact that it’s still in the early stages of the run and once the actors gain more confidence the beginning should pick up fine. I was impressed with Jude Campbell as the son, Thomas. He was not just a child doing as he had been told and walking here and saying this or that, he was a fully-formed and realistic character and this is a real achievement.
At no point, however, did I feel like the young boy caught in the middle of this adult struggle was the main character. The hauntedness of the drama is dispelled very early on and the macabre nature of his mind is only hinted at through a painting and one or two conversations about death and dying. There could, and should, have been more exploration here. The title being Haunted Child leads you to expect more from the character of the child and the phenomenon of being haunted and this just doesn’t come through in the script and I think there was room for it.
The play is quite short and never really digs its teeth into the philosophical and practical aspects of this ‘esoteric philosophy’ that has so utterly taken over this vulnerable character. Every time the script approaches some genuine philosophical challenge, some intellectual point that appears to have the esoteric maniac fumbled Penhall resorts to making him look like a fool with some sort of physical gag (and I’m not saying a bucket on the head or a Jackie Chan impression aren’t funny); I would have liked to have more substance, more debate in this piece. I wanted more friction and was expecting a more difficult fight that never really materialized.
I found the play to be confused. As I was thinking to myself about Douglas’ esoteric group, ‘if he has to forego all attachments to join the group, why has he come back to his family now?’ he almost answered my question by shouting at his wife and saying that he essentially came back to take their son with him and to sell the house to pay for his initiation. This, however, is still an attachment and attachment to other members of the group would also count, surely. The play never addresses these questions and needed to take a more direct approach and launch a full broadside on this particular brand of bullshit. Perhaps the best way to explore an issue in an intelligent way is to use intelligent characters and on this count, Penhall simply falls short. Although the characters are formed, emotional and often rational they are never intelligent, much less have an intelligent discussion. The result is that they leave the play somewhat void of intelligence in itself.
The craft on the stage was fine; the acting was of a high standard and the set was complete, functional and impressive in its subtlety and how much it felt like a home and not simply a house. However, the script was a few noticeable rungs short and could have explored deeper themes and questions further and given the audience more to leave with than just a somewhat weak plot. What could have been an interesting exploration of conviction and belief seemed to lack either element.
Written by Joe Penhall; Directed by Jeremy Herrin; At the Royal Court; Starring Sophie Okonedo, Ben Daniels, Jack Boulter, Jude Campbell; Runs from 2 December 11 - 14 January 12.
John Ord (09/12/2011)